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Scientists Use Glow-in-the-Dark Tampons to Detect Polluted Rivers

The absorbent devices light up like glowsticks when treated with synthetic chemicals.

Image via Wikimedia commons.

Turns out tampons can absorb so much more than just your period blood. Scientists in England have instead been using them to sop up the pollution being leaked into our rivers. In findings published in the Water and Environment Journal, the researchers used 16 tampons to detect the presence of optical brighteners, synthetic chemicals used in laundry detergents and on white and bright textiles, in water. When the scientists shined a UV light on the tampons, nine of them lit up like glowsticks at an EDM concert, indicating that the rivers were polluted with these chemicals.


Tampons are specifically useful for this application (soaking up unwanted fluids, that is) because they’re manufactured with untreated cotton, so they haven’t already been exposed to any optical brighteners.

The water that leaves our homes is supposed to go to a treatment center. Our modern drainage systems, however, are often flawed or decrepit, and sometimes the optical brighteners slip past the filtration system and get discharged into our rivers, says Professor David Lerner, who led the tampon study.

“Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to detect where this is happening, as the discharge is intermittent, can’t always be seen with the naked eye, and existing tests are complex and expensive,” said Lerner. “The main difficulty with detecting sewage pollution by searching for optical brighteners is finding cotton that does not already contain these chemicals. That’s why tampons, being explicitly untreated, provide such a neat solution. Our new method may be unconventional—but it’s cheap and it works."